The first people settled in what’s now Kansas at least 12,200 years ago. Archaeologists know this because they’ve found the bones of mammoths and other animals with markings from human tools on them, a sign that humans had hunted the creatures.
The first European to reach the area was Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who came in 1541 looking for cities made of gold that were rumored to exist. (He didn’t find any!) French explorers and fur traders arrived in the 1700s, and France took ownership of the area in 1800. It became a U.S. territory in 1803, when the United States bought this land—and much more—from France. This transaction was called the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1854 tension rose when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, allowing residents of both Kansas and Nebraska territories to vote on whether or not to allow slavery. That tension helped lead to the Civil War in 1861, the same year that Kansas became a state.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
Kansas’ name comes from the Kansa Native American tribe, which means "People of the South Wind."
Today some Kansans call themselves Jayhawkers. Before the Civil War, the term actually referred to Kansan bands of robbers. But once the war started, many Jayhawkers enlisted to fight in support of the Union in the North and the abolition of slavery.
Kansas' nickname, the Sunflower State, comes from the fields of sunflowers that bloom here. These flowers are grown for their seeds and oil.
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
Gentle hills with pastures and forests can be found in the northeast. This area is called the Dissected Till Plains. The land here was cut (or dissected) into hills and valleys by moving glaciers and wind over 400,000 years ago.
South are the Southeastern Plains. They include the Osage Plains, which are composed of eroded shale and limestone, and the Flint Hills, whose flint ridges stick up because flint doesn’t erode (or break down) like other rocks and soil do.
Kansas' western half is covered by the Great Plains, which rise in elevation as you continue west toward the Rocky Mountains. Near the Colorado border is Mount Sunflower, the state’s highest point.
Nine-banded armadillos, black-tailed jackrabbits, plains pocket gophers, and least shrews are common in Kansas. Reptiles include prairie king snakes, western worm snakes, prairie lizards, and Great Plains skinks. Black vultures, golden eagles, yellow-billed cuckoos, western meadowlarks, and prairie chickens are just a few of the state’s many birds.
In the northeast part of the state, cedar, maple, oak, and walnut trees grow. Cottonwood, the state tree, crops up throughout the state. But Kansas is covered in a lot of grass: the west grows buffalo grass; the Southeastern Plains have bluestem grass, switch grass, and Indian grass; and the Great Plains grow bluegrass. Common wildflowers include sunflowers, verbena, purple coneflower, prairie phlox, and prickly poppy.
Fertile farmland is one of the state’s top natural resources. The state’s most abundant crop is wheat—no other U.S. state produces as much. In fact, Sumner County, Kansas, is sometimes called the Wheat Capital of the World!
—Famous Kansans include pilot Amelia Earhart, environmental activist Erin Brockovich, saxophonist Charlie Parker, and actress Vivian Vance, who played Ethel on the classic comedy I Love Lucy.
—Descend 650 feet beneath the earth to experience Strataca, Kansas’ underground salt museum. It’s part of a working salt mine, whose salt was formed about 275 million years ago.
—Step into frontier life at Old Cowtown Museum, a "town" of about 40 historic buildings furnished to look like as they did in the 1860s and 1870s! A general store, jail, and schoolhouse are all on display.